By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on January 19, 2024.
When looking at the legacy of departing Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley retired University of Lethbridge political sociologist Trevor Harrison says that party is now on the political map in this province.
And it wasn’t before she took on leadership of the party.
“There’s some people saying will it continue when she leaves but I think the very fact of winning an election and coming very, very close again this last spring means that the NDP is a force there for a period of time. Leadership obviously matters, as it did with the Conservative party before but I think it’s substantive that way. And I think she was able to broaden the support base of the NDP beyond its traditional labour supporters and to some extent broaden it also beyond just Edmonton. That’s still a bit of an issue they’re so Edmonton-based but they’re not just Edmonton-based as the election showed,” says Harrison.
The party has developed strong roots in Calgary and even in some rural areas its vote totals weren’t insubstantial, Harrison says.
“I think that she was able to give a fairly moderate image of the party and that was part of the appeal for her,” he says.
Those things will stand her legacy in good stead, Harrison believes.
The NDP managed to attract some voters who were previously leaning toward the right, taking on a moderate image and Harrison says that’s “a bit of a trick for all parties, it seems to me.”
Most parties, he says, are made up of different constituencies and interests, the NDP being no different. When a party tacks to trying to be elected, that’s different when a party is ideological, says Harrison.
“If you have no chance of success, you can kind of take fairly extreme positions to kind of at least get your message out and push policies in a certain direction.”
But when a party is in a position where it has a chance to win and govern, the party has to appeal a broader swath of people, says Harrison.
Some people are “true believers,” he says, who don’t want a party to change at all but to some extent a party has to moderate its views sometimes to attract more people into the camp.
“That’s real tricky.”
Parties can have people on different sides and the middle and a leader has to appeal to different interests which “takes a different kind of calculus than if you don’t think you’re going to win anyway because then you can all sing from the same song sheet.
“I think Notley, rightfully or wrongfully, there are people who certainly within the party think they tacked far too close to the centre and sometimes maybe even fell over the centre into the right but in terms of calculus, that’s actually in some ways that got them closer to the brass ring and certainly won in 2015,” says Harrison.
Credit deserves to go Notley for keeping her caucus together, a trick which will have to be done by the next leader, he believes.
“She clearly had a vision of how the party should govern itself and the party under her attracted what I would view as many traditional kind of Lougheed conservatives, especially as you can see in Calgary where they made some inroads. And of course Liberals, because Liberals in this province would have no place to go.”
Harrison says a problem of tacking in that direction means some people further on the extreme left might say the party has abandoned them.
“But on the other hand where are they going to? It’s to her credit she was really able to manage those different factions that all parties face and not have the party blow up.
“This party was remarkably coherent and cohesive over the entire time she was leader and that is not an easy thing for any leader in any party to do any time,” he adds.
Moving forward, Harrison says solidifying Calgary is important for the party but that doesn’t mean candidates from its base of Edmonton would be discarded by voters.
Somebody who is media smart and can be lucid and convincing on their feet is someone voters will be looking for, he adds.
“Danielle Smith, for all her flaws, the one thing she is is very good at handling the media and being able to present even when she doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, presenting as though she does. She presents as very capable and that wins a lot of voters out there. So that is a tack that is very difficult to train and whoever is going to take over as leader, will have to be able to show the same kind of acumen and smarts to really take on Danielle Smith, day to day, head on head in the legislature and beyond,” says Harrison.
In last year’s provincial election, the NDP won 38 seats, becoming the largest Opposition in Alberta’s history.
Notley was first elected in 2008 in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona. She will be staying on as leader until the party replaces her.